Whether you’re considering adopting an ecological approach to coaching or are simply interested in learning more, we recommend that you interact with the following principles as you attempt to help guide the individuals you work with, assisting them in becoming sensitive to specifying information in the game, leading to the emergence of functional movement solutions to solve more problems they encounter:
1. The performer-environment relationship
The performer-environment relationship is reciprocal or mutual, where energy is exchanged. The ambient arrays of energy (i.e., information) emerging from the performer-environment relationship specify opportunities for action (referred to as affordances in ecological psychology; Gibson, 1979). These opportunities for action are perceived based on the action capabilities of the individual at the present moment (note: action capabilities are fluid). The performer-environment relationship is the appropriate scale of analysis to investigate the emerging behavior of movers in their attempt “to become one with” the problems they encounter in the performance environment (Myszka et al., 2023).
2. Alive movement problems are king
If players are to become sensitive to specifying information (e.g., changing interpersonal distance or ball spin), they must be embedded in alive movement problems that are rich in relevant affordances (Yearby et al., 2022). Consider Bruce Lee’s statement, “Classical forms dull your creativity, condition, and freeze your sense of freedom. You no longer ‘be’ but merely ‘do’ without sensitivity” (Lee, 1975, p. 22). Dexterity isn’t developed by executing rehearsed sequences in passive or unopposed situations where the requirement to solve changing movement problems is not a requirement of the learning environment (Myszka et al., 2023).
Dexterity, defined as “the ability to find a motor solution for any external situation, that is, to solve any emerging movement problem correctly, quickly, rationally, and resourcefully” (Bernstein, 1996, p. 228), can be pursued within alive movement problems. Coaches should look to design slices of the game varying in complexity to challenge players’ grip over the field of affordances (Yearby et al., 2022). In doing so, they can become more sensitive (i.e., attuned) to the sights and sounds of the game.
3. Constraining to afford
Constraints act as information to shape the emerging behavior of complex adaptive systems (Renshaw et al., 2019), and coaches can purposefully manipulate them in practice to help players search for and explore functional movement solutions to meet the demands of the problem. Constraints can also be manipulated to move players away from stable states of organization (i.e., attractors) that are deemed non-functional or may lead to injury.
The constraints-led approach (CLA) originated from the constraints model proposed by Newell (1986), where he emphasized that movement is an emergent property of three interacting constraints, classified into the organism, environment, and task categories. Applied to sports, Davids et al. (2008) suggested that task constraints are reflective of things like equipment, rules, boundaries, opponents, and teammates; environmental constraints reflect things like light, temperature, wind, dew point, and social-cultural factors; and individual constraints reflect things like height, body weight, limb length, strength qualities, and fatigue levels. Additionally, the words communicated by a coach could act as constraints to shape how players engage with the world.
Take a moment to think about how you interact with your players. Do you instruct too much? Are you telling players exactly what to do, or are you designing problems where they can search for and discover opportunities for action that are relevant to them?
Moreover, as players’ skills continue to adapt, it is common that relevant affordances are not picked up, so coaches can manipulate constraints to illuminate or exaggerate them (Renshaw et al., 2019), educating their attention to certain areas of the affordance landscape. By embedding players in slices of the game where they are exposed to affordances pertinent to the session or task intention, they can develop functional perception-action couplings.
For example, if a midfielder in soccer is having difficulty finding open teammates to advance the ball, defensive spacing in the middle of the field can be increased slightly, and coverage on forwards near the boundary can be tightened. The ball can be thrown in from the side or passed to the midfielder to start the activity. By manipulating the space between players to begin the activity, a pass between them is afforded, or invited, while still leaving opportunities to dribble through or pass wide. It is crucial that decisions to behave differently are still available, even though the intentions of the task are to help players search for and find passing options under pressure. Further, coaches can use verbal guidance to help illuminate affordances and guide behavior without telling players what mechanics or strategies must be used to solve the problem. A coach can ask, “What are you noticing about the spacing between defensive players in the middle of the field?” By asking this simple question, the players’ attention is educated, helping them connect to information such as interpersonal distance while affording them the opportunity to work through the process of solving the problem authentically.
4. Repetition without repetition
Changing movement problems require adaptable movement solutions, so it is paramount for coaches to consider how repetitions unfold in practice. Bernstein’s notion of “repetition without repetition” (1967, p. 234) would see performers solving alive problems of varying complexity in contextual situations under changing constraints. Repetition without repetition is the pursuit of the process of solving movement problems again and again with adapted “techniques” rather than the pursuit of a perfect pattern execution (Bernstein, 1967). For coaches, this means constraints are manipulated from rep to rep (e.g., starting position, number of opponents or teammates, time remaining on the shot clock, and space size). It should be noted that very little might change in the setup of the problem; however, the coach might educate the player’s attention or intention, shaping the way they engage with the next repetition, which encourages repetition without repetition. As Bernstein famously stated at the end of his quote, “if this position is ignored, is merely mechanical repetition by rote, a method which has been discredited in pedagogy for some time.” After 17 years of coaching, I couldn’t agree more with him: variability in movement solutions (through presenting variable movement problems) and the pursuit of authenticity are vital.
5. Movement ownership and authenticity
Coaches can educate the intention and attention of players by embedding them within alive movement problems that are representative of the game, where they can work through the process of solving movement problems with their unique constraints, deepening their knowledge of the game. Here, players have ownership of their decision-making and are free to interact with the information within a problem, leading to the organization of an authentic movement solution.
In the pursuit of creative and adaptable behavior, there is value in viewing the movements of others, not to replicate them but to utilize them as an example that guides how one may attempt to interact with the problems they face. Exploratory behavior, while immersed in slices of the game, has the potential to help expand one’s movement skill set. Lastly, if a coach notices a player routinely moving in non-functional ways (i.e., they aren’t solving many problems) or their movement could potentially lead to injury, it’s here where the coach might provide some explicit guidance, educate their attention to specifying information within the problem, or manipulate other constraints to help lead them away from the ineffective behavior.
Every problem speaks to the player differently, so affording them the opportunity to connect with them and express their authenticity is crucial.
Call to action:
Consider how the information above can be introduced or intensified within your learning environment. For example, if you are overly instructive in your learning environments, attempt to say less while attempting to change the setup of the problem from repetition to repetition. Another change could be asking more questions rather than giving more answers!
If you’re interested in learning more about these ideas, then I encourage you to pick up our Practitioner’s Bundle, engage with us at The Movement Academy, or join our Patreon site (The Exchange, powered by Emergence), where you can send us questions so we can address them in greater detail.
Tyler Yearby, M.Ed., CSCS
- Bernstein, N. (1967). The Co-ordination and regulation of movements. Oxford: Pergamon Press.
- Bernstein, N. A. (1996). Dexterity and its development. L. Erlbaum Associates.
- Davids, K., Button, C., & Bennett, S. (2008). Dynamics of skill acquisition: A constraints-led approach. Human Kinetics.
- Gibson, J. J. (1966). The senses considered as perceptual systems. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
- Gibson, J. (1979). The ecological approach to visual perception. Houghton Mifflin.
- Lee, Bruce. (1975). Tao of Jeet Kune Do. Black Belt Books.
- Myszka, S., Yearby, T., & Davids, K. (2023). Being Water: how key ideas from the practice of Bruce Lee align with contemporary theorizing in movement skill acquisition. Sport, Education and Society, DOI: 10.1080/13573322.2022.2160701
- Renshaw, I., Davids, K., Newcombe, D., & Roberts, W. (2019). The constraints-led approach: Principles for sports coaching and practice design (1st ed.). Routledge. doi:https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315102351
- Yearby, T., Myszka, S., Roberts, W. M., Woods, C. T., & Davids, K. (2022). Applying an ecological approach to practice design in American football: some case examples on best practice. Sports Coaching Review, DOI: 10.1080/21640629.2022.2057698
Tyler is the Co-Director of Education and Co-Founder of Emergence. He has held strength and conditioning positions at Northeastern State University and the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Over his career, he has delivered over 250 domestic & international continuing education courses, workshops, and conference presentations in 15 countries. Tyler is currently pursuing his doctorate in sport and exercise at the University of Gloucestershire (UK), exploring the perceived impact on the professional work of sports coaches and practitioners after interacting with online coaching education underpinned by an ecological dynamics rationale, with a particular focus on the theory-practice link and understanding the strengths and limitations they perceive in their craft after applying the ideas in practice.